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Overview

This study provides data and analysis about the extent to which local news is fulfilling its democratic function in the UK, with the aim of informing future public policy in this area. Specifically, it examines the extent to which there has been a decline in the provision and plurality of local newspapers that may, it has been claimed, be leading to a democratic deficit at a local level.

Over the past decade, increasing numbers of academics, journalists and civil society organisations have raised concerns that a decline in the number of local newspapers and in the number of local journalists, coupled with a decrease in plurality of local news providers, is leading to a reduction of alternative news sources, a concentration of ownership, the closure of titles and less reporting of public affairs.

Using original research, this study calculates the total number of local newspapers in the UK, identifies who they are owned by, and delineates the areas they serve. It then maps local papers to Local Authority Districts (LADs) and constituencies across the country in order to show the extent to which different areas ares served by daily and weekly papers, and the level of news plurality at a local level.

Key Findings

  • 1,112 distinct daily and weekly local newspapers were identified as circulating in the UK, as of November 2015
  • Over two-thirds of Local Authority Districts (LADs) in the UK (271 of 406) are not served by a dedicated local daily newspaper that either reaches a significant number of households or circulates a significant number of copies in the area. These LADs contain over 56 per cent of the UK's population
  • Local daily newspapers are almost always located in urban or metropolitan areas, leaving many rural areas (and smaller towns) with weekly print news coverage, or - where local weekly news websites publish throughout the day - the journalistic capacity of a weekly, rather than a daily, newspaper
  • Over half of Parliamentary constituencies - 330 out of 650 - are not covered by a dedicated daily local newspaper. Of those that are not covered, 206 were only reported on five times or fewer during the official 2015 general election campaign across all major UK national news outlets, meaning that these constituents are likely to have received limited independent news and information about their local candidates immediately prior to the election
  • Four publishers - Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle - account for 73 per cent of these local newspaper titles across the UK. Archant account for a further seven per cent, while the remaining 58 publishers of one or more local newspapers account for just one-fifth of titles
  • 43 per cent of the 380 LADs in Scotland, England and Wales are served by a single publisher providing one or more titles: 165 local newspaper monopolies
  • 96 per cent of LADs in Scotland, England and Wales have a dominant publisher (accounting for over 50 per cent of the circulation of local papers publishing in that area); only 17 LADs do not. In 262 LADs (69 per cent) a publisher accounts for over 70 per cent of circulation figures
  • Following the October 2015 deal transferring ownership of the majority of Local World titles to Trinity Mirror, the latter company now dominates the local news market in 90 LADs across the country
  • An analysis of local newspaper website audiences in a sample of LADs shows that monopoly coverage or dominance of a single provider is often not reduced by the availability of online content. Of 20 sampled LADs with monopoly print coverage, 16 had monopolies in online local news provision. Of 20 sampled LADs with a dominant print publisher (but not a monopoly), all continue to have a dominant publisher online, and four receive monopoly provision of local online news

Policy Implications

Four main policy implications emerge from the study:
  1. The existing plurality framework is not ensuring 'sufficient plurality' of news media ownership in multiple local areas across the UK. In 165 LADs in England, Scotland and Wales a single commercial news publisher has a monopoly. The government should, as the House of Lords Communications Committee recommended in 2014, consider a major upheaval of the existing media plurality framework
  2. While there is evidence to support intervention, there is not yet enough detailed and local evidence to target specific interventions, such as the BBC's proposal to employ 100 new local reporters
  3. Subsidies currently given to local media - which run into the hundreds of millions of pounds - are not targeted at promoting innovation, entrepreneurialism, plurality or at addressing a potential democratic deficit
  4. There is an urgent need for further research to establish the nature and extent of local news provision and inform potential policy interventions